Exposing the Agony and Ecstasy of Adolescence

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David in his RoomLinda Brooks

A new exhibition at Joseph Bellows Gallery places 50 years worth of photographs about the impossibility of 'the in-between years' on display

Adolescence is nothing if not an endless series of paradoxes. As a teenager you spend your days with packs of people, and yet often feel utterly isolated; you’re carving your own identity, and yet are indelibly shaped by the influences around you. It’s excruciating, and magical, and formative, with highs and lows that are as devastating as they are delirious.

This summer, a new exhibition at California’s Joseph Bellows Gallery distills the endless absurdity of adolescence into a series of photographs, comprising both vintage and contemporary photographic portraiture from the 1960s through to the 21st century in an attempt to get a handle on what it all means. It's this focus on the personal that fascinated curator Mike Mulno. “Pictures of teens can be wonderfully complicated; full of innocence, fury, elation, beauty, and trepidation,” he offers. “Because of the attire and body language of their subjects, the images are simply extraordinary to look at too.” 

That they are – from Edward Sturr's 1960s pretty boys through to Joan Albert's familiar insights into bedrooms of yesteryear, the photographs on display paint a modern portrait of what being a teenager means that's defiantly rooted in history. We spoke to Mulno to find out more about the exhibition. 

On how he selected the photographers included…
"Many of the photographers represented by the gallery have bodies of work that address the subject of adolescence in strong ways. Sage Sohier, in particular, has really terrific and influential pictures of young people. After looking at the work of gallery artists, and through vintage work in the gallery’s collection, a conceptual framework for the show was laid. I felt other photographers’ work that I admire would enhance the exhibition, so the gallery reached out to several other photographers or their agents to complement the exhibitions themes."

On the theme of youth culture underpinning the exhibition…
"It was important to have both vintage and contemporary work in the exhibition – by no means a survey, but to show how teens looked/look in different eras. The specific culture that acted in forming teenage identity seemed interesting and important. The work ranges from the 1960s to the 2010s, and the shifts in outer appearance and dress throughout are captivating. Viewing Elaine Mayes’ photographs of teens in the late 1960s in Haight-Ashbury, with those of Andrea Modica from Modena, Italy, from 2010, we see the specifics of youth culture as defined by a particular era."

On his favourite element of the exhibition…
"There are some really exceptional vintage and contemporary photographs in the exhibition, by talented photographers who are both well known and lesser recognized. I appreciate the opportunity to bring strong work by less familiar photographers to a wider audience. If the photographs are operating at their best, the narrative potential of what is depicted and conveyed can locate the viewer within their own history or invite them to partake in the story before them."

On the most surprising body of work he came about in curating the exhibition…
"The work of Harry Ibach. His large-scale vintage hand coloured gelatin silver prints from his series Covergirls, Athletes, and Rock Stars gave an unexpected twist to the exhibition."


On the value of looking at a print, rather than at a screen...
"I hope visitors to the exhibition will take away the feeling that art can be formed from the content of the world and our experiences of it, if seen with responsive, careful and reverent eyes, and that the experience of looking at photographs, the event of looking at the actual physical print matters. Seeing the decisions that the artist makes in presenting his or her subject lends to the content of the picture, something that is often lost on the screen."

The Teen Years runs until August 26, 2016 at Joseph Bellows Gallery, California.